More than 900 athletes descend upon Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park for national dragon boat event.
It was one of the only complications of a weekend of racing that featured 900 athletes descending upon Nathan Benderson Park for the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew National Championships Oct. 1-3.
The dragon heads, which are added to the boats for the competition, were snapping off when some of the boats approached the "boots," which holds the boats in place until the boots drop beneath the water to start the race. Some of the more novice boats were having trouble easing into the boots.
Friday's first day of the three-day competition saw three dragon heads bite the dust.
So event organizers decided to go without the signature heads for the rest of the competition. It was the only complication of an otherwise flawless event that served as a U.S. qualifier for next July's International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships at Nathan Benderson Park.
Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates CEO Stephen Rodriguez said he received terrific feedback from the competitors.
"They would tell us that this (dragon boat) event was better than anything they've competed in," Rodriguez said. "They see this course ... this beauty."
And the dragon head woes?
'We will figure something out," Rodriguez said with a smile.
While the event attracted 900 athletes, Rodriguez said it would have drawn a field of 1,500 if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, he was overjoyed with those who came.
"This was one of the largest events anyone has had globally," Rodriguez said. "This was kind of a test event for us."
Although it was a smaller turnout than it would have been without the pandemic, Rodriguez said it didn't cause too much of a problem in terms of hosting the event from a financial sense.
"You've got the same expenses," he said. "I think this has more of an effect in terms of an economic impact (on area businesses)."
Rodriguez said the park has been adjusting to effects of the pandemic and has handled it as well as could be expected.
"You've got 20 people bunched into a boat (in dragon boat racing)," he said. "There are a lot of people not rowing (worldwide). But we did not stop (hosting events). We found ways to innovate. We kept the park active and we still are out looking at events now."
If the pandemic eases, Rodriguez expects a banner fiscal year for Nathan Benderson Park.
"We are going to put our best foot forward," he said. "We are going to host a massive amount of large events."
SANCA is looking to host an International Dragon Boat Federation World Nations Championships, perhaps in 2023 or 2025 if it earns the bid. European entrants for July's event already have been calling the park saying they can't wait until next July's event.
SANCA also will make a run at hosting more world rowing events like the Rowing World Championships event (it hosted at Nathan Benderson Park in 2017). The bid cycle will be open soon for the 2024-28 world championships.
He also noted that with many big events coming in 2022, the park could use the community's support in terms of volunteers and corporate sponsors.
The community will be able to support local teams at the Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships, such as Nathan Benderson Park's breast cancer survivor team of Survivors in Sync, which dominated during the weekend's races.
"This is the best venue anywhere," said Sarasota's Paula Heggerick, who paddles for Survivors in Sync. "It's a controlled setting and you always get the best competition."
Lakewood Ranch's Dana Bauer was just happy she could be competing in such a huge event with her teammates.
"This is absolutely fabulous," she said. "Our (paddlers) are so strong willed. When we couldn't be on the water, we worked out. I actually think we are stronger now."
The event concludes Sunday.
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